10 July 2014


It's summer, and once again I'm doing my favorite summer activity - traveling through Europe. This time we are spending two weeks in Germany and I'm enjoying getting to know the country in a deeper way. We started out in  - where else(?) - trendsetting Berlin.

I arrived in the late afternoon of a perfect July summer day and easily found my way to my hotel - the Park Inn - at Alexanderplatz. Wow! What an eyesore to the Berlin skyline! However, our small room was quite nice, and being on the 21st floor, we had unbelievable views of the city.

Looking out at Berlin's landmarks you get a sense of the vastness of this city. Twenty first century architecture alongside centuries old monuments symbolize both an eventful history as well as a very cutting edge culture. Below us was Alexanderplatz with its grey, concrete GDR tower blocks. You can't escape from Cold War reminders in this city.

Our first Berlin dinner turned out to be quite an experience. Our guidebook mentioned Cookies Cream, a top end vegetarian restaurant, and warned that it was almost impossible to find. So we headed out into the balmy Berlin evening toward the Westin Grand on Friedrichstrasse, determined to find the restaurant hidden behind this hotel. We walked over to the back, saw huge trash cans and a grey, unattractive service area. Surely there couldn't be a fancy restaurant here? But Daryl was on a mission. He walked past the trashcans, onto a corridor and saw two scruffy closed doors. Then we noticed a small sign with the name Cookies Cream. We also noticed a pad of buttons with a buzzer. We pressed the buzzer and the door opened. We entered dimly lit empty rooms. A few red wall lights cast spooky shadows. There were some red velvet curtains blocking doorways. What was this place? We saw a flight of stairs, went up, and bingo! There was an elegant, bustling restaurant on our right, and on our left, a classy bar with soft lighting. After a short wait at the bar where we sampled dry Riesling, we managed to get seated despite not having reservations.
What an amazing meal it turned out to be!
The restaurant has a small menu, which changes every week. There's an emphasis on seasonal, local produce. Every dish was unusual and creative and exquisite. Daryl had chicory, cooked and marinated, served with chamomile, creamed almonds, and a cracker. I had quail's egg in brioche with potato foam and truffle juice. For mains, Daryl had parsley root with quinoa, and I had parmesan dumpling with artichokes. For dessert we had strawberry and raspberry with phyllo pastry and white chocolate ice-cream. We savored every single mouthful. Trés magnifique! Worth a flight to Berlin just for the experience. This restaurant had everything - ambience, elegance, formal service, and above all, the food was par excellence! The bill was a bit steep, but worth it.

We asked the guys at the bar about the place being so hard to find. They explained it was all deliberate. They also mentioned that after 10:00 the bar section turns into a nightclub. The main doors open then. They also told us that the club only gets lively at midnight! So, no, clubbing was definitely not our scene. We headed back into the beautiful Berlin summer evening.

The next morning we headed out to Hackescher Markt for breakfast. On my previous trip to Berlin I had an amazing breakfast at the 1840. We sat out in the square and ordered cappuccino and croissants. While it was all quite good, the place had changed. A few years ago the 1840 served up huge breakfast plates with an assortment of breads, jams, and fruit at a really reasonable price. Oh well, it's still a great breakfast place.

Midmorning we hopped on a train to Potsdam. It was Fabian's 8th birthday, and we were meeting up with him and Julia. After fetching us from the station we went into Potsdam and strolled through its historic, pedestrianized center, taking in the pretty architecture.
The weather was fine - a tad cool - but pleasant for walking and exploring. We had lunch at an Asian restaurant - a mediocre meal - nothing that will make it to the memory archives.

Julia found us a terrific place in Lehnin village where her parents live. We were right beside a large lake and from our spacious, very comfortable room, we could walk out into a garden. We had large windows and comfortable chairs to relax and enjoy views of the lake and garden.
Monica, Fabian's German grandma, baked a fresh strawberry cake for his birthday. We had coffee, cake, and other treats in the garden. Fabian opened his presents and seemed quite happy with the fuss made over him. After coffee we played a game of croquet on the very large lawn. Monica is a gardener and has a variety of fruit trees and other attractive plants growing in the garden. Later we took a stroll through peaceful Lehnin village and got a feel for German life out in the countryside. We went to the monastery and park and returned home for a dinner feast. White asparagus soup, roasted vegetables on skewers, salads, cheeses, and breads all washed down with a full bodied Spanish red wine.

White asparagus soup is a specialty of this region. White asparagus grows in abundance in the Potsdam area and is in season in May and June. Monica froze some white asparagus for me because she knows how much I love this soup. What a treat!

After dinner we strolled back to our place and sat beside the lake, sipping more wine and chatting with Julia and Fabian. A family of swans fascinated Fabian and he couldn't take his eyes off them. There is nothing quite like northern European summer evenings, when the weather is pleasant and it stays light until close to 10:00.

The next morning, after driving through forested countryside and cute villages with farm stands selling cherries, various berries, and black and red currants (johanisberg) we returned to Berlin. We stayed in a little apartment in the Mitte that we found through Air B&B. Julia, Fabian, Daryl, and I strolled around Berlin's main monuments. First we stood in front of the Brandenburg Gate and admired its details. Then we wandered over to the Reichstag. It was a scorcher and we were all quite unenergetic.
The Reichstag. What a building! And what history it tells! I learned that the original, built between 1884 and 1894, was destroyed by fires and wars. It was rebuilt in 1958, and the modern dome, designed by Sir Norman Foster, was added after reunification.
Due to bad planning on my part we weren't able to go inside and take in views from the dome's roof terrace. You had to buy tickets 4 days in advance.

We had our first flammkuchen at a cute little restaurant right near our Berlin apartment. When I ordered it I had no idea what to expect. I knew it was vegetarian (spinach and feta) and baked in a clay oven. When this pizza looking pie appeared with crisp, brown crust and an appealing topping I was thrilled. I learned later that this is a specialty of the Alsace region, similar to a pizza, but with a very thin crust and instead of tomato sauce they use créme fraiche and little if any cheese. It has to be cooked at a very high temperature for only a few minutes. It was quite tasty and went down very well with a Berliner Pilsner.

 Strolling down the Unter Den Linden a VIP motorcade zipped past us. Angela Merkel in one of those snazzy black cars?

Notice the red bicycle lane. Berlin's roads are designed to fully accommodate cyclists. How wonderful to be able to get around a big city safely on a bicycle!
 Why is there so much fuss over ampelmann? Pedestrian traffic lights show a man in a hat -a GDR legacy. Is there more to this?

 Berlin's avant garde food scene gave us much pleasure. We ate superb, memorable meals at top end vegetarian restaurants. Such imagination and creativity went into the preparation of meals. Menus change on a weekly basis and is based on what's in season. Even the serving dishes and utensils are über trendy! At Chipps near the Gendarmenmarkt, everything is served on slabs of slate. There's an emphasis on seasonal produce, prepared in unusual yet delicious ways, and served in a most artistic arrangement.
 We spent a morning with Julia and Fabian at the Deutsche Technikmuseum. The Science Spectrum Center was ideal for kids with lots of hands on experiments and Daryl had great fun showing Fabian some fundamentals of science. Foucault's Pendulum fascinated Fabian as Daryl explained how it proves that the Earth rotates.

We said goodbye to Julia and Fabian at lunch time. Daryl spent the afternoon on museum island. I gave him instructions to check out the Pergamon altar, the Gates of Miletus, the Gates of Ishtar and Nefertiti's bust. After a few hours of taking in antiquities Daryl was done with museums! I spent the afternoon walking around Potsdamer Platz.

 It was July 4, the day Germany played France in the quarter finals of the World Cup. The city throbbed with excitement. We strolled along Kollingwitzstrasser in the Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood while the game was on. It was about 7:00 on a balmy evening and the many bars on this street were packed. Extra TV screens were set up so that everyone could have a good view of the game. Germany scored early and then for a long time nobody scored. This made it all quite suspenseful. We were on our way to another top vegetarian restaurant.

 Lucky Leek in the Prenzlauer Berg neighborhood has to be the trendiest vegan restaurant in the world. A very yummy amuse bouche served on a slate platter promised a meal to savor and remember. And yes, our high expectations were well rewarded. Once again, just studying the menu brought us immense pleasure. Carrots and Hazelnut Praline. Caramelized Feta Cheez. Braised seitan filet. Austrian dumplings. How to choose? Well, the menu is small, changing every week according to what produce has been just harvested. We sat on the terrace, enjoying chilled local beer and cuisine that made us feel like royalty. There was quite an atmosphere of excitement around us since Germany just beat France in the quarterfinals of the World Cup in Brazil.
Almond Ricotta Canneloni
Leek Balls | Ratatouille Cream | Pak Choi | Apricot 

 On our last day in Berlin we took a quick stroll through Nikolaiviertel, expecting a charming medieval quarter. Yes, there were narrow cobbled pedestrianized lanes and old buildings, but somehow this area seemed to exist solely for the tourist. So after the obligatory photo of the Nikolai church towers we dashed over to Alexanderplatz station. We hopped on an S-bahn to East Kreuzberg.

We took in the interesting paintings on the East Side Gallery, the largest section of Berlin Wall still standing. Pity about the graffiti sprayed over the really good art.
 For lunch we went to Yellow Sunshine, a vegan fast food joint in West Kreuzberg where we sampled vegetarian curry wurst. The food was pretty unremarkable, but it got us into an interesting neighborhood. We immediately noticed that it is less grungy than East Kreuzberg. And lining Wiener Strasse were a truly international assortment of restaurants.
As we headed for the S-bahn after a pretty unremarkable (though not unsatisfying) lunch we noticed an attractive bakery called Bravo Bravko. Their display case had a wide selection of home made German cakes and they all looked outrageously tasty. How to choose? We settled for sachertorte - and it was the best ever (washed down with excellent strong coffee). The cake was moist, not sweet, and the chocolate deliciously bitter which was set off by a layer of berry preserve.
We spent the afternoon strolling along the Kuu'damm. A heatwave in Berlin made this a challenging experience. After 15 minutes we'd had enough of looking at ritzy shops. We decided to find Bus 200 and get a city bus tour of Berlin. Riding past the Tiergarten and other attractive places, we realized there was still so much to see in this throbbing city.
 We ended our Berlin stay in style. We got tickets to the Berlin Open Air Classical Concert held in Gendarmenmarkt. What an amazing setting! It felt like the ultimate in La dolce vita to be sitting in front of three stunning buildings - the French Cathedral, the Deutscher Dom, and the Konzerthaus - on a warm summer evening, and listening to a selection of popular Mozart and Beethoven pieces. I couldn't believe that they performed Eine Kleine Nachtmusiek and Fur Elise, but I actually enjoyed it. Beethoven's Choral Fantasy was the highlight, although I very much enjoyed the arias and duets from  Haydn's Il Mondo De La Luna, Beethoven's Fidelio, and Mozart's The Marriage of Figaro. There were stunning light displays of various hues and patterns on the stage as well as on the two cathedrals.

After this utterly satisfying concert we went across the street to an inviting bar for a nightcap. There was lounge type seating with comfortable cushions on the terrace. The place was crowded and atmospheric as is so typical of northern European cities on warm summer evenings. It was quite the perfect way to end our fantastic Berlin visit.